Inconvenient Conscience, 8 – Turning Around, 4 – Germany

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If we review the various ages of history, we will see that in every generation the Lord [the Creator God] has offered the opportunity of repentance to any who are willing to turn to him.”

– Clement of Rome at the end of the First Century CE

In 1929, Germany was considered by many Europeans to be the most progressive, civilized, highly educated, and scientifically sophisticated nation in Europe.  Its historical cultural attainments were also highly admired.  Theologically, it was considered the leading Christian nation.

It had been over ten years since the end of the Great War of 1914-18.  Germany had greatly struggled to find itself following the catastrophe of crushing defeat and the ensuing social and political revolution.   The Versailles Peace Treaty had been so vindictive that many Germans were unable to accept all the territorial and financial penalties and limitations on their status as a Great Power which it had imposed.  But as 1929 dawned, it seemed that Germany had adapted and was finding a new future as a peaceful, once-more prospering nation in the international community.

Many Germans were still angry about how the Allies had treated the Fatherland and imposed a diktat which made Germany the scapegoat for all the terrible things that had happened since 1914.  But reasonable, liberal people were leading the country and seemed to have found a road back to respectability and reintegration in the international community.  Even the onerous reparation payments had been renegotiated with the Allies and made more tolerable.  The economy was once more humming, workers were once more getting a living wage for their families, and German culture was once more regaining its leading edge among the enlightened nations of the world.

Then came the Great Crash of October 1929.  Within a year, Germany faced economic Armageddon – six million unemployed in an adult male workforce of about 22 million, millions of pauperized families destitute, thousands of businesses gone, banks going bankrupt, and on and on went the tale of woe. 

The lurking forces of extremism rapidly thrust themselves front and centre after having spent the previous five years in the political wilderness.  A quirky, brooding, charismatic fringe-party leader with a Charlie Chaplin moustache catapulted into national prominence with electrifying oratory and promises of German redemption and the restoration of all Germany’s old, lost greatness. 

His more outlandish views about Jews and other undesirables could be ignored as demagoguery if you didn’t know any better, which 95% of Germans didn’t.  A few restrictions on “those people” wouldn’t hurt anyway, eh?  And if you really thought about it, history and culture really did show that Germany was a superior nation and Germans were superior people – compared to the half-barbarians of the East and the mongrel nations to the south, or even southern France.  The Nordic nations and England were the only countries that could racially compare.

Hitler thundered that Germany had been cheated and betrayed from within by those wretched connivers and manipulators – the Jews and Communists.  Germany had not really lost the Great War because of military defeat; internal enemies had undermined the nation’s effort, sapped morale, and engineered a socialist revolution which still threatened to destroy the German people and rob it of its true destiny.

So went the tale, and, over the next two years, it sounded better and better to millions.  The fiery, hypnotic orator with the funny moustache and mesmerizing eyes looked more and more like the man who could lead them out of their wretched national condition and give regular folks a new chance to have secure jobs and a country able to protect and provide for them.

On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler, who had become the most powerful politician in Germany, was constitutionally sworn in as Germany’s Chancellor (Prime Minister) by octogenarian President Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the icon of the old leadership establishment.  The Old Guard thought they could control and use the ex-corporal; within two months they learned that they could not.  He used and completely outwitted them, and, with Hindenburg dead in August 1934, his hold on power became absolute.  Der Fuhrer had arrived!

Twelve years later in May 1945, Germany lay in utter ruin, along with most of Europe.  The German people had lost at least six million war dead, not counting the “subhumans” previously removed from the population.  The country was completely occupied by the victorious Allies, who quickly fell out among themselves while dividing Germany into two – West and East.  The two halves were fashioned in the image of the occupiers – the democratic, capitalist West, and the Communist, totalitarian East. 

The division ended in 1989 when the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain were torn apart, and Germany proclaimed its own reunification.  Some trembled at the thought of a reunited Germany in the heart of a Europe where the old Occupiers had faded away.  The new Germany (Fourth Reich?) was born with a pledge to be democratic, peaceful, and dedicated to cooperating with its neighbours to build a European Community where all were equal and could prosper.  The government swore that the new Germany would never allow the old ultra-nationalism and racism to once more raise its head.  It seemed reassuring that the leading party in Germany was (and still is) the Christian Democratic Union Party.

In contrast to East Germany before reunification, West Germany emerged into prosperity and repentance and reconciliation with its former enemies in the period 1949-89.  Its first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was a deeply committed Christian.  Although the general population of West Germany was still too numb and absorbed with recovery to follow in his spirit for the first twenty years, he led West Germany to full recognition and relationship with the new Israel.  He negotiated generous annual reparation payments to the Jewish state as early as 1951, and reached out to other nations to seek reconciliation. 

From 1965-68, there was a series of West German trials of SS war criminals and Nazi officials who had operated the most notorious death-camp of Auschwitz between 1941 and 1944, and later of other death camps.  This marked the full acceptance in West Germany of what had happened, and taking full responsibility for it within the populace.  From that point on, the people and country embarked on a road to make amends.  After 1989, that effort moved into the former East Germany, however reluctantly, and it continues in all Germany to this day, both by deliberate government policy and at the grass roots level, where it had really begun even before the Frankfurt Trials in the 1960s.

Jesus once said, “By their fruits you will know them.”  We also say, “Actions speak [much] louder than words.”  Germany has produced fruit pointing to the nation’s true repentance.  The Nazi past has been accepted and repudiated; Nazi criminals have been brought to justice; Israel has had firm support and received (and continues to receive) generous reparations to Holocaust survivors and other aid from Germany; Germany has endeavoured to reach out to its neighbours for reconciliation and with practical help; Germany is the backbone of the European Union and has been more than generous in helping the other members when they have been in crisis.

While not every German owns what happened in 1933-45, there is a large majority that do and abhor it.  What can we learn from the German example?  Many things, but we can only mention a few here.

First, pious apologies at an official level for historic wrongs mean little or nothing.  In the last two decades, it has become a bit of “a thing” for Western governments to issue official apologies to ethnically oppressed and victimized minorities, throwing conscience money along.  Here in Canada successive federal governments have apologized to all kinds of groups and minorities for racism and neglect and victimization by the majority European stock population over the last four centuries.  But does this signal repentance and a real acceptance of and desire for it?  The lack of meaningful action that leaves so much as it has been suggests otherwise.

Some other states have done better at this than Canada.  Some have done less.  None have approached Germany’s effort.  What is the missing ingredient?

Repentance!  And how does one truly repent?  That comes from within, in and of the spirit, the full acceptance of what an awakened conscience shouts at our hearts.  It cannot be contrived by an intellectual process or a superficial emotional response of regret and remorse.  Political posturing does not constitute repentance, as necessary as political action is at the national level.  In Germany, there was, from the beginning of the movement, an underlying spiritual movement.  It came out of the country’s long-neglected Christian roots. 

Repentance is not a “one and done” deal.  It is an inner disposition which initiates and sustains action over the long haul.  After all, “sin” (missing the mark, falling short, committing moral offence) is a problem that has to be dealt with all the time since we all continue to miss the mark.  When we are speaking of the sins of a nation, the terrible damage runs very deep and very wide.  The repentance must be commensurate with the offence.

There remain at least two major aspects of this subject to discuss before we conclude.

Next time, we will look at some other national situations in the light of what we have noted so far in this exploration.

Finally, we will apply whatever we have gleaned to the individual, personal level.

Inconvenient Conscience, 7 – Turning Around, 3 – Repentance

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 “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand/nearby/right here/among you/in your midst/within.” –

an expanded translation of the meaning of what Yeshua/Jesus said about beginning to change one’s life and seek the Creator.

We now come to a very hard word for our ears to hear and our Post-modern minds to accept: Repentance.  This word is encrusted with religious connotations which our culture has generally rejected.  There is no substitute or synonym which conveys its basically simple meaning without all the baggage rife with religious judgmentalist connotations.  It is not the same as sorrow or regret or remorse, which are basically passive responses.  To “get it” we have to revert to etymology and the New Testament (koine) Greek word it translates so poorly.

The English word is imported from French – (se) repentir, la repentance – which in turn is derived from Latin poenitere.  The prefix “re-“ refers to a repeated action, not a single one.  The French pentir(e) refers to a leaning posture.  Thus repent(ir) is to turn or change a direction to its opposite, to turn back, to turn around.  The Latin is very close in meaning to the Greek verb – metaneō – to turn (right) around, to go in the opposite direction.  The French originally retained the sense of the Latin, having been directly derived from it.  The English is thus third-hand and, as we noted, has morphed into a caricature of the original.

Repentance is therefore an action, an active, ongoing posture. It is not a one-and-done deal, although it must begin sometime, somewhere with a positive decision, followed by the act of turning away from the destructive way to the positive, life-giving way.

The English word “sin” comes from Old English and its Saxon roots.  Its meaning is the same as that of words in other languages designating a religious and/or moral violation which offends God or the gods.  The Greek word is hamartia, and, while it means “sin” it denotes and connotes “missing the mark/target”, falling short of the desired goal.  Thus, it is not exclusively about religious or moral fault.

Why belabour the semantics of words which are out of vogue and are among the new “four-letter words” in our brave new progressive West?  (Meanwhile, the old “four-letter words” have become cultural mainstream.)  Simply, our relegation of such things to the dim fringe of our language and conceptual framework is one more symptom of our deliberate cultural and moral impoverishment. 

Do we really have to talk about “sin” and “repentance”?  Who today believes people are “sinners” other than religious fanatics?  As for moral standards, we all know they are quite malleable and can be legislated to suit the newest and latest research from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and moral philosophy – or even bio-genetics, physics, and chemistry.  Moral guilt?  I suppose we still need some semblance of that to assign blame for anti-social acts.  But an anti-social act is itself conceptually a changeable thing according to evolving popular standards.  Heck!  Professors professing the wrong set of ideas in university, or even playing devil’s advocate in a discussion, may be guilty of anti-social acts these days!  (So much for the great commission of the universities to explore truth with some sort of objectivity!)

Meanwhile, in the back reaches of our souls, the little inner voice still whispers, “But you know you are a sinner, that you have been and are immoral.  You know there really are right and wrong things, things in your mind and that you actually do which really should change, however much they can be rationalized and temporized by your own inclinations and the wink-winking of society.”

The debate within goes on, poked alive from time to time – maybe by one of those religious-types or some passing reference in a show or a book or a magazine.  Old terms like “(in)equity” and “(in)justice” still evoke moral outrage, whatever they may now be directed at. 

And then the “celestial spark” flares up at you and irritates you:  “When you took that little thing at work, you know it was stealing, eh?  When you lied that little black lie to your partner or your boss to cover up, it was a lie.  When you tell yourself your drinking, recreational drug-use, gambling, and porn “dabbling” are not really hurting anyone else, you know damn well that’s so untrue.  When you go out on another shopping binge and spend way beyond your discretionary spending budget, you know it just ain’t right or fair and everyone else in the family will suffer for it.  When you habitually gorge on junk-food as some sort of emotional therapy, underneath you know how bad it is for your health, and that you will pay for it, and so will those who have to care for you.  And, in all this stuff, everyone else pays for your guilty conscience’s desperate gymnastics and your manipulative antics to justify and bury your – um, er, gulp – sins!”

This litany is not my way of saying I am more righteous than anyone else.  The reason I can make the list is that I am well-acquainted with sin myself, and with some of the things on that list.  But denying that they make me feel guilty (just another way of saying they spur my conscience into appropriate reaction) will never give me peace or help me change.  For that, well, there’s only one road out – get ready for it! – Repentance!

I suspect that a great many of us here in the West will not even be able to accept that this primal need is more than a sort of vague cultural memory that can be dismissed out of hand, or at least by procrastination and neglect and rereading/rehearing all the rant and cant against subservience to religious claptrap.  But if we accept that this old concept still lives in our hearts and souls because it is a reality, however hard we have worked to bury it, we then have to come to terms with how we actually go about it – this “turning right around to go in another, radically different direction” so that we can really begin to change and experience a new way of living at peace with ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.

Perhaps a recent and very powerful historical illustration will help.  I speak of Germany.

Absurd Holocaust denial aside (yet millions still buy the Big Lie that it never happened, or that it didn’t happen on anything like the scale all the historical records declare), the whole word is aware of the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi regime in Germany between 1933-45, aided and abetted by a great many accomplices in other states of Europe, whether directly ruled by the Germans or coerced.  Six million Jews and as many more other “subhumans” (Romani, gays, disabled, etc.) died in extermination camps or by massacre or execution.  Tens of millions more were killed by deliberate policy of reprisal, starvation, deportation, intimidation, etc.

We now know that the fable that the ordinary German populace did not know, or knew little, about what was going on is mostly bunk.  It is easy to judge from the outside that they should have stood up to oppose this horrendous and monstrous action, that the Army should have taken action to stop it and punish the SS and perpetrators.  However, we don’t have to look far afield to find numerous examples of bystanders looking the other way while terrible things are done right under our noses.  Fear and the desire for personal peace (“just stay out of it!”) keep mouths shut.  It is costly to step in to confront injustice and just plain old evil.  You may very well end up the next victim.

World War 2 ended and some of the worst war criminals were tried and executed by the Allied victors.  Others vanished, while still others were quietly slipped into the shadows to serve the new masters who wanted their expertise to use against new enemies.  A great many minor players just blended back into the general population, hoping to remain more or less invisible.

But in Germany, after a decade or so, a remarkable thing began to happen, and it lives in that nation still.  There was a real, genuine, national repentance!

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 6 – Turning Around, 2 – Paradigm Shift

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“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities—brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”

John W. Gardner

“We need not only a purpose in life to give meaning to our existence but also something to give meaning to our suffering.”

Eric Hoffer

 “paradigm n. 1. a typical example or pattern; a model. 2. a mode of viewing the world which underlies the theories and methodology of science etc. in a particular period of history.”

The Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

Paradigms do not die easily for any of us.  Every people and culture in history has had and has its ruling paradigms.  We are acculturated to believe that the world and cosmos work according to this common understanding of reality.  Families and communities operate within the shared paradigm of a clan, a nation and a civilization.  Some local expressions may deviate to a degree, but on the whole are rooted in the bigger picture.

 In the 21st Century, the overarching Western (and, to a large degree, global) paradigm is scientific, technological, and evolutionary.  This tells us that all things can be learned and understood, formed, reformed, fixed, and improved by Science and its applied side, Technology.  The downside is that those two demi-gods can just as easily be turned to evil and destructive ends as used for good.

Western humans entertain a sort of self-hypnosis that we can and will master nature, compel it to do our bidding, because, tiny on the cosmic scale as we are, we are smart, really smart!  We can learn everything we need to because we are so smart.  We apparently are in the process of uncovering the very secrets of the Universe Itself – its when, what, and how at least.  Our current paradigm mostly sloughs off the why and who and makes the where irrelevant.

A near synonym for paradigm is worldview.  We all have one.  Worldview is a broader concept than paradigm because it takes in everything we believe, whether we are conscious of those beliefs or just operate from them without ever formulating them in so many words.  Much of our worldview is simply absorbed from our infancy on, and perhaps even in the womb, but the human infant rapidly moves beyond mere instinctual responses to learn how things fit into its little world and how to begin manipulating aspects of that little world to satisfy its basic needs and begin using things.  As we grow, huge new parts of our worldview are added by imitation, absorption, formal instruction, and experience.

Worldviews are not static structures within our psyche.  Events and experiences constantly impact them and make us modify them on an ongoing basis.  Big events, whether positive or negative, bring acute crises in our worldviews and challenges to our paradigms.  An accumulation of small factors may also do this over time.  This is true for everyone individually, and just as true for societies.  Our responses to these crises reveal our fundamental character and direct our future course.

Our opening citations tell us that there are two basic responses to every major challenge – rise up to meet it as an opportunity to grow, or run and try to hide from things we can’t or won’t face up to.  There are two variations available.  First, a tactical withdrawal, as the military would put it.  Draw back temporarily to regroup, to gain some time to reform the lines so that we can move forward later with a plan to meet the crisis and find and perhaps even exploit the hidden opportunity within it.  The second is to bravely (or abjectly) surrender to fate and let disaster triumph.

We of the West in the early 21st Century are at a major crossroads.  The crisis in our culture and souls has been growing for many decades until it is now screaming at us.  Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water being very gradually heated up, we have been ignoring its growth until it has become the elephant in the room.  Every now and then it startles us with a resounding “BOOM!”  We are briefly forced to come out of our stupor and self-absorbed quest to accumulate and satiate ourselves, but then hasten to “get back to normal”.

Think World War 1, the Great Depression, World War 2, the 60s Counterculture ferment, Civil Rights and race riots, 9/11, and even the economic meltdown of 2008.  All everyone wanted after these times of turmoil was to somehow bury it all and get back to “personal peace and affluence” as Francis A. Schaeffer put it.  We operate with an illusion that we deserve and can achieve something like Utopia via luxury, ease, and convenience.  Discovering the world does not promise this, we seek to approximate it in our personal lives.  Here in the West, we believe we deserve it, we are owed it. 

Other civilizations seem to have kept a more balanced perspective.  Buddha’s wisdom that “All life is suffering” guides hundreds of millions to understand that the kind of Utopia the West propagandizes is an illusion that just begets more suffering.  Hinduism says “Amen” and offers eventual perfect unity with the One after multiple lifetimes of vain striving.

We of the West have taken the opposite tack and succumbed to a materialist worldview that tells us that the only version of Paradise is one to be found here in the one lifetime we know we have.  Such a Paradise must perforce consist of maximum pleasure and comfort, for what else is there?  You cannot offer people a vision of the future perfection of the human race as a substitute and expect them to sacrifice their own chance at some joy and contentment here and now in the name of evolution.

Ideology fills no heart’s void.  It divides.  Science in itself answers no ultimate questions.  How does it help you even if it’s true that the Cosmos is 14 billion years old?  Humanly, it’s meaningless to tell us that it will go on for another fifty billion years before it either implodes to start all over again, or just dissipates into a cold, dead, never-ending expanse.

We cannot avoid wanting “something to give meaning to our suffering”, as Hoffer says.  Truly, existence without meaning is suffering at its worst – viz. Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist classic, La Nausée.  The need to know “Why?” ever haunts us, and the “Just because” of Evolution falls dead in our hearts.  Even the hardest atheist hopes his/her life has meant something to someone.  Humans are cursed with the terrible, tremendous, burning need for hope.  We are bred to the bone with the aspiration to know the truth – about ourselves, about our earthly home, about this enormous reality called Cosmos.

Every child learning to discover knows in the gut that all this cannot be just a freak, a huge cosmic joke, a meaningless illusion that tricks us into believing it is here for a purpose, into which we fit somehow.

Despite more than a century of intellectualized propaganda that there’s really no meaning and that there is no Creator-Being behind it all, even most Westerners still stubbornly cling to the belief that there is such a Being, that it does mean something, and that we do have some unique place and role in it all, both as individuals and as a species.  The very fabric of our being is formed to believe.

Hence the gnawing doubt that eats at our subconscious and keeps blowing on the smouldering wick/ “celestial spark” of conscience to annoy us and prick us and remind us that we have a moral obligation to seek justice and act humbly and do mercy to one another in the name of and in honour of that Creator who, it has long been said, made us in Their own image.

Hence the mostly sublimated but always-there suspicion that we really do need to repent!  For something!  Even when we find some good reason to, it’s never quite enough.  The heart, mind, soul, and spirit still hunger for something deeper that the partial points to.  For without turning to the Creator, there is no ultimate reconciliation possible, no final resting place to find.  The still small voice thunders inside our deep of deeps, “Turn around!  Turn back!  The Kingdom of God is within, in that place of the broken Divine image waiting to be made whole again.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 5 – Turning Around, 1

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“You reap what you sow; if you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind.” The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)

“Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

“Turn right around, for the Rule (Kingdom) of God is at hand/right here/right now/among you at this very moment.” – Jesus

I have been a student of history for most of my life.  I grew up in a home surrounded by books and steeped in a love for music.  My father had a large library of serious books about all kinds of things – history, philosophy, theology, psychology, and science among them.  He had never finished High School because, when the Depression hit in 1929, as the oldest of five, and a sixteen-year-old boy, he had to drop out of school to help feed the family.  Despite this, he always hungered to learn and accumulated and read books, encouraging his children to do what he had not been able to do.

My parents not only made sure we had the basics, but strongly encouraged us to go farther than they had been able to.  (My mother had completed High School.)  Mom made sure we had an impressive array of good children’s books and Encyclopedia – the Britannica Junior, Britannica (Adult) and Americana, and a complete set of The Book of Knowledge.

I was a strange kid.  I rarely read the Hardy Boys, but loved adventure stories, especially those based on History, like Enid Blyton or G.A. Henty books.  But I loved “real history” most of all and began devouring all the Encyclopedia articles about history – in all three sets of Encyclopedia by the age of Ten.  I began to rummage in my father’s library too to find interesting stuff I could at least partly understand.  I read Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War  the first time at ages thirteen and fourteen.

It was my strange taste in books which opened up a door to a friendship with my paternal grandfather, a man with a reputation in the family for being hard and at times mean to kids, a veteran of WW1 who never spoke about it except with a few old army friends he still had – and me, under an oath of silence until he was dead!  (I have written and published an account of my unique friendship with “Grandpa” in Grandpa’s Hands, available on Amazon.)  This is one big reason true war stories have always drawn me.

What fascinated me about history was that it reveals what people are really like – the good, the bad, the ugly, the sublime, the stupid, and the downright wicked.  I discovered that historians don’t always agree about exactly what happened and why, and sometimes not even when, but through all of that muddle the truth about who and what we humans are really like as we show by deeds rather than words keeps breaking through.  Psychology has its place, but history, I found, is the context for everything and teaches the best and worst about human nature set in the nitty-gritty of both the big story and all the little stories as they fit into the big story.

I also found that all the great leaders displayed some degree of deep perception of human nature.  Great thinkers might have this too, but many of the great ideologues seemed to lose sight of it in their flights of imagination and fascination with the stratosphere of best-case scenarios if only humans would stop being so damn contrary.  This led me to read extensively about the two extremes – the amazingly good people and the downright evil ones.  So I read a lot about heroes and discovered that they all have clay feet, like Churchill and Lincoln, both of whom remain among the “greats” despite their flaws.  And I read a lot about horrendously wicked people such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, mad (as in insane) genii who functioned at a high enough level to do very terrible things while somehow convincing and coercing myriads to acquiesce in their infamy.  (The psychology of why people follow such monsters is quite another issue.)

The three brief references at the top of this episode point to the most important but most neglected truths about humanity that paying attention to history teaches us:  (1) the Law of Karma is almost completely borne out over time, to the degree that it invites belief in the old-fashioned idea of fate; (2) everyone knows that we should learn from the past, but almost no one ever does – both as individuals and as societies from the smallest level (family) to the widest (nations, civilizations); (3) nevertheless, there is a way out of the trap of being the pawn of history and the mere victim of fate, – both personal and collective.

First, about Karma.  I am not a Hindu or a Buddhist, but the idea of karma is quite simple: sooner or later your past, or our past, will out and catch up with us.  There is always a price to pay, whether now or later.  Biblically, it is “You reap what you sow,” and “Be aware; sooner or later your sins will find you out,” and, as Jesus said, “What was said in secret will be shouted from the housetops,” and “You will be accountable for every idle word that you say.”  Physics tells us that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” and also now tells us that even chaos theory and the uncertainty principle seem to sort themselves out to take every obscure event into the equation.  We best see this illustrated by the “butterfly effect”, that the beat of a butterfly’s wings in China may be the final factor in unleashing a typhoon on Hawaii.

History is full of “might-have-beens”, “what-ifs”.  What if the assassin in Munich at the beer hall in 1939 had succeeded in killing Hitler?  What if the British Tommy in 1917 who had him dead to rights in the Battle of Arras had not just let him walk away?  What if John Wilkes Booth had been stopped and shot by Lincoln’s AWOL bodyguard at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865?  What if Julius Caesar had heeded the seer and his own wife Calpurnia on March 15, 44 BCE?  Etc.

And, perhaps the greatest of all, at least in the West, what if Yeshua ben-Yosef had never been born in Bethlehem, probably in the year 4 BCE?  We could then have just been gradually transformed into Stoics or Epicureans, or, perhaps by the gradual progress westward from India of monks and adherents, we would have evolved into an Asokan-style Buddhist culture.  Or perhaps we would have all become Jews, or just remained pagans of various varieties.

But the West’s history turned down a very different road following the coming of this single person and the life and death (and reputed resurrection) of this extraordinary comet of a human being named Yeshua ben-Yosef.  He came from “Nowhereville”, from a very obscure village called Natzeret in the north of an insignificant province of the Roman Empire on the eastern fringe of the Roman (and then Western) world.

The absurdity of the West’s identity-crisis and the extent of its conscience troubles are no better illustrated than by its attempts to divest itself of direct association with the Person of Jesus.  Failing that, we exert might and main to transform him into something far less potent and challenging than he was or can be made to be by even the most extreme efforts. 

Since he was born and lived and died, despite the completely asinine but still persisting attempts to say that he never really existed (!!!???), we then proceed to a bunch of other “if-onlys”.  If only he hadn’t made it so damn hard to reduce him to another nice philosopher and moral teacher.  If only all those wretched miracles didn’t keep popping up to confuse the record, and to confuse the gullible masses who keep insisting they can and do still happen!  And worst of all, if only the absolutely absurd tale of his resurrection from the dead could just be disposed of, once and for all!  Then we could ignore all the really challenging bits of his life and teaching, and the kinds of extreme behaviours to repeat those challenges and make us rethink our own lives and society that some of his most dedicated (fanatical?) followers have kept confronting us with over the last two thousand years.

That word of his they keep repeating just plain sticks in the craw of the modern psyche.  Metanoia in the ancient Greek – Repent in English!  Sounds too freaking religious, eh?  It just means, “Turn around!  You’re going the wrong way, straight to destruction!  There’s another way, a better way, but you have to turn around!”

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 4 – Conscience vs. Tyranny

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“For now we see [ourselves] in a mirror, dimly, but then [we will see] face to face.  Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”

from The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians Chapter 13, verse 12, in The New Testament

As we once more pick up the question of conscience in the West, we ask, “Why are we so afraid to face ourselves and admit the truth?”  – the truth about why the West has run from the “celestial spark” (see Part 3) of conscience. 

The process of running from ourselves began long ago.  It has gathered tremendous momentum since the ferment of the 1960s Counterculture Revolution.  Since then, there has been a continual impetus to shed the Judaeo-Christian elements of the West’s character and foundation.  It would be unthinkable now for any leading statesman to speak as Winston Churchill did in 1940 when inspiring the people of the British Empire during World War 2 as he declared that it was a war to save “Christian civilization”.

Today we live a culture where people are often shamed for holding strong morals and principles based on the conviction that God holds us accountable.  However, if you hold such notions because of a philosophy or ideology other than the Judaeo-Christian, there is a shade more tolerance.  The public face of the West is now that all principles are mutable in the face of new notions of truth about what constitutes progressive tolerance and an open social order.

Churchill never claimed to be a model of devout Christianity.  However, he recognized that the foundation of the West stood on its Judaeo-Christian heritage as much as upon the Greco-Roman tradition of reason and rational thought.  He was not denying or excusing excesses committed in the name of Christ, or of any religious leader or institution.  But neither was he under any illusion that human nature is basically good and our powers of reason and scientific discovery of truth and wisdom will take us into paradise on earth.  He was no fan of utopian schemes and well knew that the real meaning of “utopia” is “nowhere”.  The results of utopian thinking were rampant before his eyes in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and the Fascist countries of Europe.

Churchill preferred democracy.  He famously quipped, “Democracy is the worst possible system of government – except for all the others.”  He was not deluded that the popular masses would somehow find and decide what is best because, after all, people are all basically good when you scratch beneath the shallow exterior.  It was because he believed the opposite that he fought tooth and nail to save democracy throughout his whole political life and in his prolific literary output.

His iron faith in democracy was based on the understanding that the ruthless and brutal will naturally rise to the top if not checked.  After several thousand years of trying various schemes of oligarchic, monarchic, and tyrannical rule, the verdict was in that the great and powerful individual or oligarchy will inevitably degenerate into selfish, abusive, corrupt, dissolute, brutal, and oppressive government, regardless of the best of early intentions.  As Lord Action (an eminent British historian of the 19th Century) put it, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Churchill was himself a scion of the privileged English aristocracy.  Paradoxically, he firmly believed that for the inevitable abuses of power by the powerful to be held in check, ordinary people have to be empowered through constitutional arrangements and a relatively impartial system of justice.  None of this was “natural” to any civilization that had yet existed until it gradually emerged where Christianity had taken root, buttressed by certain ideals of the Greeks and Romans at their best.

 For Churchill, this sort of government found its best and most effective expression in Great Britain and was extended to its Empire thereafter.  This happy marriage emerged only in the culture and civilization of “the West” – in Europe and its appendices in North America and a few other places.  (Please note, I am not advocating the innate superiority of the West.  We are discussing an historical phenomenon.)

The essential difference between Western leaders like Churchill and those since is their fundamental view of human nature.  Churchill’s view, shared by most educated people and leaders of his generation, was that humans are not basically good, but flawed, marred, and ever ready to take advantage of others, circumstances, and nature for personal gain and benefit.  People are not born as blank slates imbued with benign complaisance and readiness to treat others with equity and justice, all things being equal. 

Where did Churchill’s pessimism about human nature spring from?  Three main sources: (1) a deep reading of the Bible and understanding of its core message[1] of fallen human nature in need of Divine salvation, (2) a profound interest in and study of history which continually illustrated #1, and (3) personal experience and astute observation of human behaviour, his own and everyone else’s he ever met.

The second and third of Churchill’s sources are still wide-open to anyone who cares to consult them and draw appropriate conclusions.  For the most part, the first has now become a closed book.  Oh, it is still available to be read, but it has been discarded as a religious relic or an irrelevant mythological curiosity by our educational authorities and intelligentsia.  What reputable person aspiring to be taken seriously and become influential today would now publicly refer to it as a source of wisdom?

Why did Churchill (and so many other leaders and thinkers back then) use quotes from and allusions to “The Good Book” regularly in his speeches and writings and still keep his credibility?  Is it just a question of different times and less enlightened generations of the past?  Did Churchill and other leaders and serious academics of his time actually think they could use the ideas based on such a source to inspire people to reach beyond their own limitations and to effect meaningful, progressive change in society?

This is not an article about Churchill, as interesting a person as he is.  It is about our feeble grasp on truth and our society’s vaporous idea of conscience.  Part of the cause of our social and ethical disintegration is that we have pushed the old “sources of truth” which people formerly considered crucial to the side.  Even completely secular thinkers and admirers of the Enlightenment tradition such as John Ralston Saul (Voltaire’s Bastards) have deplored this phenomenon.

The truth about us as a collective, and probably for many of us as individuals, is that we are adrift, “at sea” with no landfall or reference points in sight.  Oh yeah!  There is an old map still around somewhere, but everybody says it’s like those medieval charts with pictures of sea serpents and is completely fanciful.

The pursuit of fame, fortune, the perfect body, the perfect career, the perfect partner, all turns to sand after a while.  When we wake up to that, we begin to search for an identity beyond our technological prowess and our mania for “self-actualizing” ourselves as anything we care to imagine.  For most of us, the refrain of “you can be and do anything you like or can imagine, even totally reinvent yourself and your gender” turns out to be the pursuit of a phantom which keeps disappearing around the next corner or curve in the road.  Or maybe the Phantom sneaks up from behind and laughs snidely that it’s a chimera.  The Phantom smirks that we should have known all along what we are really supposed to become, but now we’ve burned so many bridges it’s too late, or seems to be, to go back.

The West now suffers from a two-fold collective guilt-complex.  The first element of it stems from the residual effect of the old paradigm of the missionary impulse to “civilize the world” – i.e., to Christianize it, which also meant to Europeanize it.  This bred imperialism and exploitation while covering it in a veneer of a holy mission.  Not that every missionary or even every imperial administrator was a conscious agent of oppression and exploitation – although some of the administrators were crassly so.  We rightly rejoice that this arrogant hubris has now been shed (or so we think) as wickedness.  And we feel rightful guilt for it.  In this, our conscience has been true.

The second part of our collective guilty conscience is that in having thrown out the very sources of the West’s well-developed sense of social justice, we have lost the very values that have always kept us on track towards that goal.  It used to be called the promise of the coming Kingdom of God taking root in this age, however imperfectly it was done.  Now, without a compass, and having undermined our very foundations, we have only the very thinnest notion of what real justice and mercy look like.  In making ourselves free to pursue whatever vision of ourselves we choose, we have made ourselves slaves to the baser parts of our nature.

[1] Churchill was raised with the Bible by his Nanny.  He had sections of it memorized and continued to read it from time to time as an adult.


Inconvenient Conscience, 3: Whatever happened to our conscience?

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“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.”

George Washington’s “Rule of Civility”, adopted from a now unknown Jesuit priest of the 16th Century.

We finished last time with three questions, the first of which was “Why have we become so morally, ethically, and spiritually bankrupt as communities and nations?”  Today we will attempt an answer.

The West has lost its bearings when it comes to foundational principles and values.  It is fractured and fractious, with its public face deeply cratered between “Right” and “Left”, “Progressives” and “Reactionaries”.  We could find many other labels to attempt to describe our riven soul.

Despite our collective moral, ethical, and spiritual bankruptcy everyone retains some sense of morality, ethics, and spirituality, however jumbled.  The bankruptcy consists of our society, our culture, our civilization, having no deep reserves, no central “bank” of long-held traditions and unifying vision from which to draw any more.  Our communities are fragmented and confused as to what is true, what is worth saving and fighting for, what is the core of who and what we are and aspire to be.

While I do not see George Washington as a model of public virtue and probity as our American neighbors’ national mythology so often portrays him, he certainly had virtues and principles, however inconsistently he may have lived by them (his views on slavery, for example).  On the whole, he attempted to live as a man of integrity and honor.  He lived in a time when the general consensus was that to not live by one’s conscience was reprehensible, if not unthinkable.

By contrast, we make heroes of people who have too often parked, seared, and even erased their consciences in order to claw their way to the pinnacle of whatever heap represents the ultimate in achievement.  CEOs, super-rich entrepreneurs, aspiring academics, elite athletes, unscrupulously ambitious politicos, actors, rock stars, etc. all leave behind them a bleeding trail of broken promises to and lives of ex-spouses, children, parents, siblings, best friends, business partners, associates, and team-members.  What was done to “arrive” disappears in the mists of fame, acclaim, ultra-wealth, and even notoriety fanned into a blaze of glory by mawkish media and the cyber-universe.

What Mr. Washington’s Rule called “that little spark of celestial fire” has gone out.  In truth, we no longer have a connection to the Great Celestial Flame that lights and keeps the fire burning.  All I have is my own little fire and no other source to keep it going but my own feeble strength.  This is quickly depleted without a connection to a core of power from which I can draw.  It’s not very surprising if I find my spark overwhelmed by the side-drafts and downdrafts of all the contrary currents wafting into my little corner with every passing fancy of the latest trends of “revolutionary new thinking” and (manufactured) popular fashion, opinion, and pseudo-folk wisdom.  All the more in an age when every wild idea runs rampant across the cyber-sphere with little restraint.

But the saga of taming the West’s conscience so that it no longer presents an obstacle to doing what I want, when I want, with or to whom I want and not having to face any consequences is a long tale.  For the sake of brevity, and not putting you, my readers, to sleep, I will reduce it to a rather crude simplification with which you can then concur or take exception.  If it merely succeeds in provoking you to turn around and check on your own little “celestial spark”, even if you reject my version of the story, it’s all good!  Argue with me, but, as a once-popular Christian chorus put it, “fan [it] into flame”.

Here is my crude tale:

“Once upon a time, the ancient world was a hodgepodge of warring polytheistic tribes and nations.  All these tribes and nations lived as seemed right in their own eyes and had different ways of holding themselves together and accountable.  Generally, it was recognized that there were divine entities who were somewhat marginally interested in human behaviour, even if only for their own benefit of receiving their worship, which validated their existence.

“Sages, seers, and prophets began to suspect that the stories of their divinities were often less than admirable with regard to promoting general good behaviour among their human adherents.  It was proposed by some of these that beyond these rather low-level sets of deities there must be a Higher, Ultimate Divinity who had created the world to operate on established laws and principles that were valid for everyone, everywhere, and always.  Lawgivers and great spiritual leaders proposed ways of living according to the ways of the Great God, who was increasingly seen as the One God behind all the others, and who may even have created them.

“At this point, paths began to diverge as some peoples followed the Way given them by one of these inspired Lawgivers or Enlightened Ones.  But that there is a Higher Power, a Supreme Deity who esteems moral righteousness and has created a basically good creation became a general principle in much of Asia and then moved into the West.  Two strands of this belief penetrated into the heart of what became the West – the first via the Greeks and their philosophical disciples, the Romans, and the second via the Jews and their theological and spiritual near-cousins, the Christians. 

“Skipping forward a bit, we find an uneasy unification of the two strands forming the core of what became the soul of the West.  Like Jacob and Esau in the Bible Book of Genesis, the two struggled in the womb of their mother [Rebekkah in the Bible story] and the younger [Christianity historically] came into the world grasping the heel of the elder [both Greco-Roman philosophy and Judaism are in this place historically] and ever seeking to surpass him and take his place.”

The Story of the West cannot be in the least understood or kept in any proper perspective unless we keep the reality of its birth in sight.  The civilization that came into being from the unification of these competing twins became known as “Christendom” for about 1500 years.  Only since World War 2 has the West turned its back on that long and tortured but immensely real and powerful saga and sought to substitute another tale for it.

The chief element of the new story is the determination of a new set of self-appointed Lawgivers and Prophets to deny and excise, or perhaps exorcise would be the most accurate term to describe this ferocious campaign, the Judaeo-Christian twin from the family. 

What such an exorcism is producing is becoming more and more appallingly evident.  It is a mutilated, traumatized facsimile of a soul with no depth or substance, incapable of sustaining the body once inspired and invigorated by the uneasy partnership of the twins.  Even the remaining twin (the Greco-Roman) has become so marred that it scarcely resembles what was once so vital and admirable and extolled – its heart of reason and gracious estimation of human dignity as the reflection of the Supreme Divinity.  It seems that by killing one twin, we have killed, or are in the process of killing, both.

Ideology blinds its fanatical promoters and advocates at least as much as any theology.  What we have now seen all too terribly in modern history is that it ultimately kills many more people, much more beauty, creativity, and even creation than any set of Inquisitors, Zealots, Mujehadin (?), Puritans, or whatever other set of religious fanatics ever did.

And one of the most terrible and tragic casualties left in the devastation along the roadside is “that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience”.

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 2: Seared Conscience Anyone?

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“Conscience is extremely well-bred and soon leaves off talking to those who do not wish to hear it.”

Samuel Butler

“The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake.” 

Germaine de Staël

All of us have scars on our bodies.  What is not so obvious are the scars on our souls, and especially on that part of the soul called conscience.  And, just as each of us as individuals have these indelible marks etched into our flesh, our minds, and our spirits, so do our families, our communities, our nations, and our civilization.

Butler and de Staël point towards the universal human condition which the ancient Christian leader known as the Apostle Paul called “the seared conscience”.  Almost everyone who lives long enough and develops normally will eventually develop this condition, at least to some degree.  If you think you are an exception, I will simply ask you to think of two little things you now regularly do without any hesitation and which, if you think about them anymore, you know are not really (1) good for you and (2) good for someone else.  Do “little white lies” always effortlessly slide by?  What harmful little habit do you ingeniously excuse every time, or just about every time, you indulge it?  What destructive pattern of behaviour in a relationship do you maintain despite knowing how much it irks, and perhaps even offends, the other party – not because you intend to be cruel, but just because it’s comfortable for you, or it allows you a small sense of control at their expense, even though it would not cost you much to give it up?  (Of course, breaking a long-established pattern can be quite troublesome.)

You get the point.  But why do you not even have a qualm any more about those little cheats and micro-thefts, those tiny little lies to yourself and others?  And how did they come to be justified in the first place?

Before we go any farther, I will ‘fess up that I am as guilty as the next person, so this is not about me or anyone being better than you or anyone else.  The religious “saints” of any faith you choose to name had and have to deal with this.  We need to give up the tendency to wrap such hallowed characters in haloes and picture them as floating across the ground rather than actually having to walk up and down and stub their toes like all the rest of us.  James, the brother of Jesus, wrote in a letter to the early Jewish (Messianic) Christian community, “All of us make many mistakes, after all.” (James 3, verse 2)  But now we call him “Saint James”, warts and all – and the accounts we have of him do not make him sound very gracious, although very righteous!

Physical weakness and illness are familiar to all of us, some much more than others.  So too are the consequences of accidents or foolish actions that result in injury and even infirmity.  Even the individual who otherwise exhibits no moral compunction about almost everything else will admit they were stupid and wish they had not been that one time that crippled them, or maybe did that to one person who was/is really special to them, at least as far as they are capable of feeling special attachment to or need of one particular person.

As Butler elegantly puts it, the seared conscience results from a habit of “leaving off” listening to the inner voice which used to say, “What you’re doing is not right and you know it.”  When we cease hearing the inner voice, we also become experts at outwardly rationalizing our harmful behaviour as “not really so bad”.  Another favourite line you hear and maybe have used yourself is, “If I’m harming anyone, it’s really just me.”  Addicts love that one!  As if their drinking, gambling, and drug-use costs nothing to their family, friends, and finances!

What are our little bad habits, even if only minor in comparison to the really bad ones (drugs, alcohol, gambling, porn, etc.) except petty addictions?  Bad habits are the little (?) addictions that kill pieces of us slowly rather than swiftly like “real” addictions – you know, those big ones like booze, alcohol, porn, etc.  Porn is now so widespread that it has virtually been removed from the general cultural conscience as an addiction and is even suggested by marriage/relationship counsellors as a therapy for spicing up the flagging sex-life!  Huh?  As if the guilt over porn-use isn’t there and hasn’t sapped the desire for and attraction to real-life sex in the first place.  It’s like saying to the wretched heroin addict in withdrawal, “Say, take this!  It’ll make you feel better!” and handing them their next hit.  (Hmm.  I seem to recall certain “safe-injection” sites in certain cities that do pretty much that very thing.)

Voilà the collective seared conscience in living Technicolor!  Another example is abortion, which, at least here in Canada, has been eliminated from any possibility of discussion in the public forum.  Our Prime Minister’s party will not even allow anyone who questions any part of our lawless approval of it (there has been no law in Canada restricting abortion for any reason since 1988) to stand as a candidate or open a discussion about it at any level.  The Opposition parties are hardly any better, and most of them are at least the same.

The seared conscience eventually leaves us selectively blind and deaf to our own sins – both individually and collectively.  Think Nazi Germany and its incremental persecutions of all those classified as social misfits and parasites (Jews, the physically and mentally infirm who had no one caring about them, Slavs, Gypsies, Communists, gays and lesbians, etc).  The myth that ordinary Germans did not really know what was going on has long since been abandoned and completely disproved, despite the arrant hatred of Jews and other victims by Holocaust deniers who continue to use the Nazi Big-Lie propaganda technique.  You can’t just “disappear” a few million of your own people and pretend you didn’t know, no matter how much Nacht und Nebel you createto cover it up!

Both individually and societally, part of the justification process of developing a seared conscience is excusing the same things in others so that we don’t have to be reminded about our own violations of that dormant “delicate voice of conscience” as Mme de Staël put it.  If I can be tolerant and forgiving of someone else’s substance abuse or petty cheating, or occasional lapses into abusive relational behaviour, well then it can’t be so bad if I fall into it either, can it?

My purpose here is not to stir up a load of guilt in anyone reading this.  Neither is it to advocate a return to old-time religious judgmentalism like the Puritans practiced in New England or in the days of Oliver Cromwell in England, or Calvin in Geneva, or Knox in Scotland, or the Inquisition.  That is no solution either.  That too is a manifestation of seared conscience.  We do not want anything like Iran under the Ayatollahs or Saudi Arabia under the mullahs.  We want a society and culture where we don’t silence and censor and persecute one faction while overlooking the addictions to power and control (and whatever else) of the others, but we face the issues honestly and openly.

I leave it to you and God, or whatever other spiritual sense of greater being you deal with, to keep you headed towards a destination that takes others as much into consideration as yourself.  Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Buddha said, “Do not do to someone else what you would not have them do to you.”  Moses said, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” 

Regaining contact with our personal inner moral compass in our now largely morally bankrupt culture is very urgent and important.  In the long run, it is even more important than taming COVID-19.  At least if we believe that human beings are more than creatures who have only a finite existence defined by birth and death.  And perhaps even then.  The bigger issues are (1) to understand why we have become so morally, ethically, and spiritually bankrupt as communities and nations, (2) why we are so afraid to face ourselves and admit the truth, and (3) what, if anything, we can do about it.

TO BE CONTINUED

Inconvenient Conscience, 1

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consciencea moral sense of right and wrong especially as felt by a person and affecting behaviour; an inner feeling as to the goodness or otherwise of one’s behaviour.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002

Conscience is one of those human peculiarities which we have traditionally identified as setting us apart from the animals.  With all the ultra-progressive ferment to abolish traditions and moral categories as sexist gender-oppression, Western racism, and capitalist exploitation, the existence of this quirk of homo sapiens has become rather inconvenient for those pushing hard to change (and even abolish) how society deals with questions of right and wrong and justice and injustice.

The simple truth is that conscience has always been bloody inconvenient.  From the Book of Job (perhaps the oldest literary work in the Hebrew language and one of the oldest philosophical and theological treatises in the world) to the ruminations of Plato and Cicero, it has flayed the dealings of every generation and plagued the footsteps of humans from Emperors to beggars.

 Everyone who reaches the age of reason and accountability has experienced the discomfort of a guilty conscience.  Whatever else might be argued from psychology, philosophy, and ideology, no one can deny that they have, at some point, offended their own sense of fairness and rightness in some way they have treated others, even if only for a fleeting moment.

Occasionally, you meet people who appear to have no operative conscience to speak of.  (It seems as though there are more of them than ever these days.)  A few such whom I have met have been downright scary! I suspect that most callous people have developed the art of successfully ignoring and denying any sense of guilt about (ab)using and manipulating others for their own ends.  Strangely, they are very quick to decry offences committed against them and usually cry for vengeance upon the offender. 

The desire for vengeance is the flip side of conscience. It comes from a sense of moral right and wrong in which the avenger is seeking to redress the balance of wrong committed against them or someone or something they care deeply for.  The irony of successful revenge is that it does not absolve the avenger of guilt for now having reversed the balance of right and wrong by in turn wronging the first wrong-doer to an equal or greater degree.

People of my age and older sometimes marvel at the lack of integrity and sense of shame that appears to be so pervasive in our current version of Western society.  (In all conscience, we must admit that we helped create this sorry state with all our “countercultural” zeal of youth fifty years ago.)  But it is not as if the situation has never existed before, either in the West or every other civilization that has ever existed.  (Of this more later in this series.) The real question is why we humans fight so hard to rid ourselves of the burden of guilt-sense, regardless of the era.

No amount of psychologising about how we’re all victims of social conditioning has yet made conscience go away.  No amount of mental gymnastics guided by Freudian psychoanalysis about repressed sexual desire has rid anyone of having a bad conscience about how they have done and do wrong to others and themselves.  No amount of anthropological research has traced this inconvenient aberration back to some ultra-remote ancestral hominid who somehow evolved this the faculty of feeling badly about inflicting pain and suffering on other humans and even on other creatures.

Is conscience an instinct bred into us by our evolutionary heritage?  If so, it is a strange one.  As far as we know (but of course we cannot know for sure), it is not an instinct shared by any other higher order creature.  Some other “higher” animals seem to share elements of understanding about death and caring and even love.  Some can learn to flee when they have done something they know displeases humans and get caught.  Some even punish members of their pack, pod, or flock for neglecting their role or crossing boundaries. While such behaviours demonstrate remarkable animal intelligence, they are not bred from conscience, but self-preservation.

If conscience were an instinct, it would seem to be related to the general good of protecting and preserving the species rather than the narrower purpose of self-preservation, although that may coincide from time to time.  If nothing else, conscience is closely allied to our superior intellectual and abstract reasoning faculty.  Animals cannot lie and feel bad about it.  They readily steal without compunction.  Predators kill their prey without remorse.  In reproductive rut competitors will fight an opponent to the death without hesitation if necessary.  Many other natural examples of the absence of this weird human behaviour in animals could be cited.

A once well-understood and very descriptive phrase has dropped out of public discourse in the last generation or two. It is “the seared conscience”.  Think of cooking a steak or chop or a stir-fry with meat.  One of the first things to do is to sear the meat in oil on both sides under high heat in order to seal in the flavour.  The New Testament writer known as the Apostle Paul originated the phrase “having a seared conscience” to describe individuals who, by repeated violations, have burned away the tender, delicate exterior layer of their conscience in order to avoid feeling guilty about doing the things they (used to know) are just wrong, regardless of how the general culture and society may view them.  In that sense, they have inoculated themselves against guilt-sense and that nagging inner voice of conscience.

Globally, there is much talk these days of developing “herd immunity” to the COVID-19 virus.  Vaccination seems to be one of the keys to achieving this.  Historical examples of this abound – polio, smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, etc.  While it is true that our immune systems can learn to resist infection, without inoculation there really is no such thing as “herd immunity” for a great many diseases once seen as “plagues”.  Even now, for some of the worst diseases and plagues which can and do generate far worse pandemics than the present one, there never has been a vaccine and there remains none on the horizon.  Cancer, diabetes, Bubonic Plague, leprosy, and cholera come to mind as examples.  The only remedy for these is prevention by concerted discipline in hygiene and strict quarantine and treatment should they break out anywhere.  Where COVID will fit in this spectrum we do not yet know.

But the point of this reflection is not our current fight to control the COVID pandemic, as critical as that is.  It is an even larger and, in a general humanitarian sense, more important issue.  It is about a malignant spiritual plague that has set itself deeply in the very core of our personal and collective souls.  It is the searing of our consciences to the point that we have culturally, as a society, reached a condition described by the Hebrew Prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah to English readers of the Hebrew Bible) 700 years BCE.  There is no “herd immunity” to a bad conscience.  However, we may well be facing the development of the appalling phenomenon of a collective seared conscience.  Here is how Yeshayahu refers to it:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,

Who change darkness into light and light into darkness,

Who change bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.”

Chapter 5

It is not so much that this sort of social degradation has never been seen before.  Indeed it has, many times.  But when it appears on a mass scale, it is a sure symptom of a truly sick society.  Perhaps even a terminally ill civilization.

As the great British Meta-historian, Arnold Toynbee, exhaustively demonstrated in his monumental magnum opus, A Study of History, civilizations and cultures (the two are inextricable) have a life-cycle, much like individuals, as indeed do particular nations within civilizations.  When a civilization is approaching its end it shows advanced signs of decay, just as a human body nearing life’s end will. 

We cannot do justice to Toynbee’s twelve volume analysis here.  It must be said that his work has largely been discounted by many of the professional historians of note since he first published it.  The main thrust of those critiques is that all attempts at what is called Meta-History (the academic mortal sin Toynbee committed as he ended a previously brilliant career) are really only an imposition of the author’s already formed worldview on the material.  In this case, Toynbee has been disavowed by his peers as a scion of the Old Western elite imperialist academic establishment and a white male besides. So categorized, his whole approach can be discarded a priori and the man himself dismissed into academic oblivion while others like Herbert Marcuse are elevated into demigod status and their blatant ideological bias declared anointed.

In truth, nobody in any discipline can avoid imposing their already formed worldview on the material studied and what they produce. Thus the charge against Toynbee is spurious, for his critics commit the same sin, even in criticizing him.  That sort of criticism is a ploy to avoid having to actually seriously engage with the astonishing profundity of what Toynbee produced.  (Even supposedly objective disciples as the “pure sciences” (physics, chemistry, mathematics) are practised within a preformed worldview.)

The worst part of Toynbee’s offence is that his whole worldview smacks of the moral categories of the West derived from the now discredited perspective of Judaeo-Christianity.  Judaeo-Christian social philosophy holds that there is a definite gradation of values based on moral scruples and elements of advancement even in a sort of secularized version of “the Kingdom of God”.  In our much more enlightened phase of Post-modern, Post-Christian, decolonialized (etc., etc.) Western society (which is supposedly morphing into [viz. imposing – shades of the old imperialism!] a global, progressive society that will liberate everyone from all conceivable forms of oppression and repression), moral categories must be eschewed, especially any left over from that old paradigm.

Which brings us back to the old notion of a moral conscience.  For there cannot be any other form of conscience.  Bloody hell!  That is so inconvenient!

TO BE CONTINUED

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 3

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by Vincent Marquis

Copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

(This is the third and concluding part of a re-imagining of the calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples by Jesus.)

“It was a terrible night,” answered Andreas.

Shim’on cut him off, “We fished all night and caught absolutely nothing.”

Yeshua looked at him soberly, “So why don’t you put back out a little ways and throw a net back in?”

Shim’on looked at him as if he couldn’t be serious.

“Humor me,” said Yeshua with a warm smile.

Shim’on really didn’t want to put in the better part of another hour’s work just to humor someone he hardly knew, but those eyes and that voice were irresistible.  After hesitating, he answered, “Master, since you wish it, we’ll go out again.”  Andreas looked back hard at him in disbelief.  Shim’on motioned to untie the lines and push the boat off the wharf.  They both went to the oars and in a minute the boat was on its way back out onto the lake.

Yeshua stood between them with a hand on the mast and said, “I appreciate a bit of a boat ride.”

Ya’akov and Yochanan, now standing on the wharf, were incredulous. The Shim’on they knew would never agree to put back out right after coming in from a fruitless night.  Shim’on seeking to become friends with a rabbi was a revelation.  Shim’on was not what you would call a serious religious person.

The two junior partners watched wordlessly to see what would happen.  If nothing else, it would make a good story.  They could tease big Shim’on unmercifully and watch him squirm about how easily he was talked into something so obviously pointless by a smooth-talking rabbi.

Andreas and Shim’on rowed the boat out about a stadium.  Shim’on dropped an anchor to keep from drifting.  The likelihood of finding fish in broad daylight, even at this, the closest good spot, was about zero at this hour.  Shim’on nodded his head to Andreas to help prepare a net.  They made sure the tether-line was not tangled. They shook the net loose and moved to the port side.  Shim’on took it himself, readying to cast it so that it opened full and fell into the water at maximum expansion.  Might as well do it right as do it at all!

As he was beginning his move to the cast, Yeshua suddenly interrupted, “Try the other side of the boat.”

Andreas looked at Shim’on.  Would he take this new suggestion?  He knew his brother too well to think he wasn’t already irritated.  What difference would it make?  There were no fish on either side!

He expectedly a sharp retort about wasting their time.  What could a carpenter turned rabbi know about fishing?  A fisherman would not dare to presume to tell him how to build a good house or make a proper table.  For a moment he saw the color rise in Shim’on’s cheeks, then quickly recede.  He shrugged and moved to the starboard quarter.  Then, with a “One, two, three,” and an expert fluid motion he threw it over the side.  It opened perfectly in its parachute shape and landed on the surface of the lake.  The weights carried the bottom down while the cork floats held the top up.

The brothers felt their fatigue.  They sat down wearily on the center seat to wait.  It had been a long, disappointing night, and now they were playing tourist guide to a quirky new celebrity rabbi with strange ideas about fishing.  Shim’on once more thought wistfully of home, a quick wash-up, a nice breakfast with Shoshanah, a cuddle of little Hannah, maybe a nicer cuddle with his wife when the toddler was napping and Grandma was watching her…

Suddenly, the tether line was running out with great speed!  What the??  It yanked to an abrupt halt, even causing their sturdy boat to list heavily to starboard with a sudden jerk.  They were on their feet fully alert and without pause began hauling on the thick tether-line.  Even with their combined strength they could barely move it an inch.  Slowly, agonizingly, they pulled it up one little bit at a time.  Then, without asking, a third pair of strong arms and hands had grabbed on behind Andreas and the line began to move slowly but steadily back into the boat.  Even so, it was back-breaking work.  Yeshua had also stripped down to his tunic.

After what seemed like an eternity in an instant, with burning arms and shoulders, the three men in the boat got the net to the surface.  Getting it up over the side out of the water with all the dead weight of the enormous catch would be another issue.

What Shim’on saw as the net appeared coming out of the depths staggered him.  It was so crammed full of fish that it could not possibly hold more.  And they were all deliciously large and plump!  Every single fish looked like the most perfect the lake had to offer.  It was a catch beyond any fisherman’s wildest dreams!  It was, literally, an impossible catch!  His net should never have been able to hold it; it should have torn from the sheer weight and bulk of it!

They would never be able to haul this over the side, even with all three strong men pulling with all their might.  He told Andreas to yell to Ya’akov and Yochanan to come back out at once.  They had to help get this record catch in now or they would lose it.  It would take both boats and all five of them to get it to shore.

He told Andreas and Yeshua to secure the line till the others came out as he held it braced against the thwart, ensuring that the net would not sink back into the water.  Waiting, he sat down, utterly confounded, looking with awe and wonder at this rabbi-carpenter, full of questions and no possible answers that made any sense.

How had Yeshua known?  Was it just dumb beginner’s luck?  Just a total, freak coincidence?  Or was there something much bigger going on here?  One or two or even a few fish caught in full daylight you could ascribe to luck, coincidence, some sort of freak of water current and temperature.  But this??  Never, ever, not even in a really good night’s fishing!  It had never happened before to anyone in living memory.  And it just happens when this man shows up and tells him to go back out when he’s had the worst night’s fishing that he could remember in years?

He sat in shock, and felt the warm, deep eyes of Yeshua on him again.  He dared a look at him.  Yeshua stood there calmly, returning his gaze.  Shim’on couldn’t look away, although he felt as if the other was seeing right down into his soul, reading the very depths of him even to the most hidden things.  Shim’on trembled, still unable to avert his eyes.

He heard his own voice asking, “Who are you?”

Yeshua’s eyebrows lifted.  The answer left Shim’on no farther ahead.  “Yeshua ben-Yosef, carpenter of Natzeret.”

Ya’akov and Yochanan pulled their boat alongside on the opposite side to the net.  They tied the bow and stern lines to Shim’on’s boat and came over.  As the Bar-Yona boat was listing, they moved gingerly, with Yochanan enthusing, “What’s going on?  What do you need us for?”

Andreas motioned with his head, “Come and see, but don’t lean too far over the side.  One at a time.”

Yochanan moved before Ya’akov, ignoring the precedence of age.  As he leaned carefully and saw the incredible haul suspended in the net, he whistled softly and exclaimed, “By all that is sacred, that’s incredible!  Ya’akov, you have to see this!  You won’t believe it!”  He moved back to let his brother look.

Ya’akov approached cautiously.  When he saw the almost bursting net he simply froze, mouth half-open, eyes wide.  He looked around at Shim’on, still sitting in his own shock.  Ya’akov’s face registered the same emotion as Shim’on’s.  He looked at Yeshua, wondering, questioning, “You made this happen?!”

Andreas had no doubt.  “There’s no other explanation.  We all know what kind of night we had and how foolish it seemed to go back out.  Then, when we got out here, he told Shim’on to throw the net on the starboard side instead of the port side.  Within a minute, the tether line ran out so fast it jerked the boat over like it is now.  We couldn’t even haul it in so we had to call you.”

Yochanan’s awe was all over his face as he looked from the net to Yeshua and back again.  His legs felt weak, and he sat down.

Yeshua’s gaze swept over the four of them with amused affection.  Then he took a couple of steps toward Shim’on, still sitting where he had been.  He said, “C’mon, Shim’on.  Let’s get those fish into the boat.”

As if coming out of a dream, the big man rose and, without any need of direction, the five of them formed a line and systematically hauled the bulging net aboard.  As it hit the deck boards, it opened and the heap of beautiful fish slid out all over around their feet, forming a pile thigh-high.  With five in the boat and all these fish, the gunnels were low in the water. 

Yeshua suggested, “Let’s get some of these in the other boat and head to shore.”

Using baskets, they shoveled half the catch into Ya’akov’s and Yochanan’s boat.  The two sons of Zavdai hopped over and untied their lines.  The two boats were heading to the wharf in a few minutes.

When they docked the boats, there would still be a good bit of work to do sorting and cleaning the fish.  But there was already a group of people waiting to buy and the customers did not want to wait.  Fish were a staple in the Galil and this was the biggest catch of the day.  Other boats had had little better luck than they, and nothing was for sale.

Within half an hour, there were no fish left but what they had set aside for themselves.  Yeshua stayed for it all, even serving some of the customers himself.  Their collective purse was very full.

Home beckoned, but the four fishermen were reluctant to leave their new friend.  Words were inadequate and none of them were sentimental.  Shim’on knew that he should invite Yeshua home to feed him as a small gesture of gratitude, but he was still confused about what was going on in his heart.  Why did this man affect him so deeply?

Yeshua seemed to sense all this, and he said to him, “Follow me, Shim’on.”  He turned to the others and repeated, “Follow me.”

Suddenly, Shim’on understood.  He had been waiting for this for his whole life!  His confusion was that he knew he was totally unfit for this call.  His sense of uncleanness, unworthiness, and inadequacy overpowered his yearning.  He hardly realized that he had dropped to his knees as he said, “Leave me, Master, for I am a sinful, unworthy man.”

Yeshua leaned over and lifted him up by the elbow.  At the rabbi’s touch Shim’on felt the weight of his shame and guilt lift and slide off.  He felt freer and cleaner than he had ever imagined he could.  Trembling, he rose to his feet like a new man.

“He sees it all,” Shim’on’s inner voice told him.  “He knows it all, and he forgives it all.  None of it matters to him.  He accepts me for what I am and he wants me to be his friend.”  Tears filled his eyes as he looked with wonder and gratitude at his new friend.  He understood right then that he would follow him to the ends of the earth.

Yeshua looked at him with great affection.  Once more he said, for all to hear, “Follow me!”  Then, to let the others know that they too were being called, he added, turning to them as well, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 

He took Shim’on by the shoulder and, facing around, said to the four of them, “Now let’s go have some breakfast.” 

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 2

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copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

(This is the second part of a story about Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. It is based on the relevant New Testament passages in the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with some literary licence).

Shim’on paused his rowing to look.  After a few seconds he responded, “Hey, I think you’re right!  It’s a bit far to tell for sure, but I believe you.  I wonder what he’s doing there right after sunrise.  I hope he wasn’t coming to buy fish.”

“Yeah.  That would be embarrassing,” chuckled Andreas.  He called across to Ya’akov and Yochanan in the other boat, half joking, “Hey, Ya’akov, Yochanan!  Look who’s on the beach waiting just for us!”

The other two partners paused their rowing too.  After a few seconds, young Yochanan, who also had acute vision, declared without any hesitation, “Hey!  It’s Yeshua, the new rabbi in town.  Cool!  I’ve been hoping to hear him teach and meet him.  There are some pretty strange stories going around about him.”

Ya’akov cautioned him, “We’ve work to finish before you go off listening to a preacher.  Most of those stories are made up anyway.”

Andreas responded, “I don’t know about that, Ya’akov.  I was at the Jordan ford when he came for mikvah with the Immerser.  Something pretty amazing happened.  I saw and heard it all myself.”

“Yes, yes, we know what you say you saw, about a dove coming down on him and the Immerser saying he should be immersed by Yeshua instead of the other way around.  And a thunderclap out of clear blue sky!  We all know what a good imagination you have, Andreas,” finished the sceptical Ya’akov.

“It was not my imagination!” snapped Andreas.  “There were hundreds of people who saw and heard the same thing as I did.  Ask any of them.”

“Yes,” said Yochanan.  “I spoke to my friend Talmai yesterday, and he was there too.  He said that that is just what happened.  But that Yeshua told Yochanan to immerse him anyway because it was what was needed to satisfy righteousness.”

Andreas pondered.  “What a strange thing to say.  I wonder what he meant.  Now that I think about it, after he immersed Yeshua and as Yeshua was leaving Yochanan said something even more puzzling.  He called Yeshua the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.  He said he would immerse people in fire.”

“Yes!” added Yochanan.  “He did say that.  Now I really want to meet this Yeshua.  He was gone for a while, but now here he is again.  I’m super curious.  And now here he is on our beach.  Oh wow!”

Andreas the joker laughed, “Yep!  And he’s there to ask you for the best fish in your boat, Yochan,” he jibed, using his younger friend’s short name.

Shim’on was lost in deep thought and ever so slightly trembing as he listened to this banter.  The chill?  Yeshua, the new mystery man, was standing on the beach, and, he could see, plainly looking out over the lake at the four of them in their two fish-empty boats.  He had only ever seen him very briefly in the last few days that he had been in K’far-Nachum since his return from Y’hudah.  It was rumored he had not even gone to Yerushalayim, but out into the wilderness south-east of the city, down Yericho way. 

If he was an up and coming new rabbi, one even recognized by the Immerser as someone special, why would he come back here to the backside of Israel?  Why didn’t he go to the city and set up in the Temple Porticos like the other rabbis seeking to gather disciples and make a name for themselves?  He would never get anywhere by spending his time up in the Galil among its uncultured peasants and yokels.

Yet here he was.  Shim’on felt uncomfortable.  Yeshua was still staring out at them as they drew near to shore.  What did he want?  They were just about in ear-shot now, and the rabbi’s voice drifted out to them across the water.

“Good morning, friends.  Could you come into shore and let me get into your boat?”  Shim’on knew he was talking to him.  He looked at Andreas, who looked as startled as he was, but quickly responded, “C’mon, Shim’on!  Let’s do it!”

Shim’on shrugged as if he was indifferent, but mumbled, “Alright.”

Yeshua watched them come in as the boat’s prow bumped against the wharf.  He had a huge smile as he said, “I really appreciate this, friends.  I’m Yeshua.”

Andreas reached out to help him up over the gunnels, saying, “I’m Andreas and this is my brother Shim’on.  What did you have in mind, rabbi?”

“If you don’t mind I just want to spend a few minutes talking to the people who have followed me to the shore.  If I’m in a boat they’ll see me better and my voice will carry.”

“Sure, no problem,” Shim’on answered.  He felt as if he were almost standing outside himself listening.  The man’s eyes were uncanny, but not creepy.  He read real compassion in them, a sort of genuine caring.  His voice also intoned the same sense.  It was melodious, somehow soothing and authoritative at the same time.

Yeshua asked, “So this is your boat, Shim’on?”

“Yes, rabbi.  Andreas and I own it together.  Those two in the other boat are Ya’akov and Yochanan, our partners.  You might know of their father, Zavdai.  He owns a number of boats around Kinnaret.”

Yeshua grinned.  “As a matter of fact, I’ve done business with Zavdai.  My father Yosef and I helped him build a dock a while back and we made some furniture for their house a few years ago.  I don’t know if Ya’akov and Yochanan would remember me, but I remember seeing them around and chatting with them back then.”

“Small world!” said Andreas.  “Hey, Ya’akov and Yochan.  Do you remember Yeshua the carpenter working at your house and your father’s dock a while back?”

The other two looked sharply at the rabbi.  “Well I’ll be!.  Of course.  Yeshua the carpenter from Natzeret!  But, you’re now a rabbi?  That’s quite a shift!” said Ya’akov the sceptic.

Yeshua ignored Ya’akov’s tone and answered graciously, “It’s really nice to see you both again.”

He then moved to the sturdy forward shelf in Shim’on’s boat and stepped up where the crowd, now numbering several hundred, could see him.  His voice was resonant and conveyed real authority as he first told them a story about a pearl followed by another one about a treasure buried in a field.  He finished with a blessing on them as he dismissed them to go about their daily concerns.  He reassured them that he would be available later outside the synagogue for them to come with their sick and unwell.  Right now he needed to spend time with his new friends.

He stepped back down into the boat as the crowd began to disperse calmly and peacefully.  As simple as this had all been, lasting no more than ten minutes, Shim’on, Andreas, Ya’akov and Yochanan had been spell-bound.  They had just met him but somehow it seemed as if they had already known him for years.

Something buried deep inside was welling up in Shim’on, something linked to this unusual person, so unlike anyone else he was likely ever to meet again.  In shock, Shim’on the strong, the bluff go-getter realized that this Yeshua scared him.

It made no sense.  There was no threat of any kind.  The young rabbi was of an age with him.  He was a man who exuded peace and compassion, but Yeshua genuinely scared the wits out of him!  It was said that there was no one taller or stronger than Shim’on in K’far-Nachum or the whole region roundabout.  Yeshua was tall too, and his build said that he was also strong, a craftsman used to hard work.  But he exuded shalom.  His stories about Adonai and the Heavenly Kingdom seemed to be about a Person he knew. “So how was the fishing last night?” said the rabbi.  “I don’t see many fish in the boats,” he smiled.